2012, the year that was.

So we have come to the end of yet another year. Now wasn’t that fast? It seemed like only yesterday we were ushering in the new year and now, we’re farewelling it in readiness for another one. How was your year? Was it good? Did you get up to plenty of mischief?

Even though I saw family in Melbourne around Easter, I had a largely forgettable first quarter. By the time April rolled around, I was more than itching to up the ante on my social life. One of my good pals who you’ve heard heaps about, Tania,  had gone abroad the previous August, and I was bemoaning the lack of a regular Thursday date. We get on like a house on fire when we’re together but since her move I had not heard from her. Then suddenly on the April 1st, she called saying she’d returned!

It would be another 3 weeks before we actually saw each other again, during which time I had a whole spate of other reunions. Friends I’d not heard from in years called, texted or wrote to me, and in every instance we were able to take up where we left off, as though we’d never been apart.

At the end of May, after much nail-biting, His Royal Highness found he had passed his specialist exams, a culmination of ten years of hard slog as he balanced work with studies and family life. The truth, as any surgeon’s wife knows, is that we had not had much family life in the YEARS leading up to the exams, so I had to learn to stomach his company anew, one of the challenges being to cater to his food preferences, since up until then, Amanda and I often dined by ourselves.

To celebrate His Royal Highness’ passing, all three of us flew to New Zealand for a ski holiday at the end of June. Being virgin skiers, Amanda and I were both thrilled to see the snow. New Zealand in winter is simply stunning and I was glad that our stay there coincided with my birthday, at the beginning of July.

We took a few more celebratory trips in August and September, but they were mostly to nearby Gold Coast where we often stayed just the one night, leaving on a Saturday and returning on a Sunday. His Royal Highess found it odd at first not to lug around his books, whilst we found it hard to believe him not to buried in them.

In October, after yet more nail-biting, it was confirmed we were moving to Perth in 2013. Being a city-chick, I was relieved to know we’d be swapping one capital city for another, although sad to be leaving our home of 3 years, Brisbane. We’d made many friends here, lived through the floods of January 2011, savoured the cities many delights, all in all had a mostly rollicking good time.

That month my family of 3 also made our first trip to Hervey Bay, home of whale watching on Australia’s East Coast, to spend three days with Tania and her family. Days later, I flew up to Cairns to visit Frances, my astrology guru and great mate, with whom I had and continue to have many conversations about the unknown in our special language.

At the end of the same month, Amanda and I followed His Royal Highness to Sydney for a work conference, where I had the chance to meet up with a former classmate, Yuens, who owns a lovely cafe there. Like a kid from the backwaters of civilisation, I was shocked to see the number people in Sydney, all dressed like they were attending some gala function.

In November, my preparations for our move to Perth kicked into high gear. I arranged to have our place here in West End rented out and after much shopping around, booked a storage unit in Macgregor, in the Brisbane’s Southeast. His Royal Highness and I devised a definite route to travel to Perth by car, which would allow us to do get there in good time, comfortably. It is a 4800km journey across some of the loneliest stretches of road in Australia, so we’ll be sure to carry enough water and fuel to get there.

In December, Amanda’s school, like most schools in the Southern Hemisphere, finished for the year. We flew back to Malaysia to see family and friends, for the the first time in 5 years! Because of time-constraints, we were not able to meet up with everyone. At the top of my must-see list were Sheau Jing and Keng Yew, who I went through university with, with whom I have remained the staunchest of friends. They were welcoming their first child and as such, unable to travel to my parent’s home in Ipoh to see me. Hence, my rendezvousing with them in Kuala Lumpur instead.

I paid visits to many aunts, uncles, a couple of cousins and in-laws; I ate the foods of my childhood, heard the singsong voices I know so well, and reminisced, as Cancerians do, of yesterday. Oh yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away, now they look as though they’re here to stay…

Which brings me to the end of 2012. Catch me in 2013 for MORE parenting, lifestyle and relationship stories with a cultural, nostalgic bent to them. I wish you a happy new year and  a blessed and safe holiday season.

 

 

 

A very unusual Christmas present.

Me and some of the mums from school were discussing Christmas presents.

“I’m going to Garden City to buy Lego,” one announced. “I’m getting my sons Batman Lego.”

I’ll be getting Amanda intensive Kumon lessons for after the new year,” I said.

They all turned to look at me.

“Amanda has got between 5 and 10 years to thank me,” I joked. “I’m very patient.”

“It’ll be one  of your family stories,” said another mum with a laugh. “Remember the time when mum got me intensive maths lessons for Christmas?”

“Have you told Amanda yet?” asked the first mum who was going to buy Batman Lego.

No, I just told her I have a very special surprise for her waiting in Malaysia,” I said, unable to suppress my glee at being able to deceive my seven-going-on-eight year old for that long. I plan to get her a few other gifts to sweeten this one; a couple of new outfits should do the trick.

“You know what I reckon would be the best present?” said the mum who wasn’t buying Lego. “Going abroad to see the world. Just being in Malaysia will teach Amanda so much. Children here are so privileged, so sheltered.”

“You’re right. She’ll get to see hardcore poverty first-hand; the kind that is inherited, not the result of drug or alcohol abuse.” Although Malaysia has poverty resulting from and reinforced by alcoholism in the rubber estates. “She’ll see children younger than her serving her massive bowls of hot soup, working – my mother used to point them out to me all the time and say, ‘How lucky are you when you could easily have been born that kid?’ She’ll see the limbless begging at the sides of the roads, some trying to sell packets of tissue as we eat. She’ll be shocked out of her system all right. Already I’ve been talking to her about thieves and robbers, kidnappers, molesters, drug and human traffickers; of children abducted from schools, shopping centres, at the night market, never to be seen again. I’ve prepared her to meet the dredges of society we don’t see in our sanitised world.”

It’s a land where parents still spank, if they don’t belt, whip or box, many among the uneducated brazen enough to do so publicly. It’s also a land where we don’t help the old, the young or the invalid, basically anybody, at airports in case they are drug traffickers. We ask to see what’s in the bag before agreeing to carry it even for family or friends.

“Many of our kids get the shock of their lives when they go overseas,” she said.

“I bet they do.” I hear Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz saying to Toto, her dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Here in Australia, it is so safe. Barring very few areas, you can walk down the road during the day, decked out in bling like a Christmas tree without fear of being robbed  or molested at knife point. These are things that never even cross your mind, living here.

I highly recommend families in first world countries take their children to see what lies beyond their 5 star resorts when on holiday in Asia. It will open their eyes to the hardship and human suffering beyond our privileged shores and make the next generation of what might be potentially spoilt-brats, thankful for living here. Privileged Asians in Asia, cloistered in their rarefied affluence, should try living without the maid and air-conditioning for at least a week of every year to get a perspective of how the other half live. Perspective is the gift that keeps on giving long after the season’s decorations have been taken down. You can’t find it in any store and it’s bound to be one the kids remember for years to come.

5 things I love about Malaysia.

It’s only fitting I list what I love about Malaysia since I am about to return home for a holiday.   Malaysians and frequent visitors to Malaysia, see if your list matches mine. Yet to experience enchanting Malaysia? Why, here are some things you should not miss out on if you go there:

1) Food

Yes, yes, you knew it’d be number 1, because what Malaysian doesn’t like food? Being multiracial and multicultural, we have so many different kinds of food, I could spend all day waxing lyrically about it. In nutshell we have street food, hawker food (not the same as street food), restaurant food, hotel food, Chinese, Malay, North and South Indian food, Indian Muslim food (aka Mamak food), Peranakan food. Due to new migrants from around the world, we also have Thai food, Indo food, Korean food, Japanese food, the usual steak and fries, pasta, pizza…Every ethnic group has food only found and eaten during certain celebrations, at particular times of the year. For instance, during Ramadan, we have the most mouth-watering array of curries, sambals, pickles, cookies, cakes you can imagine lining entire streets of night markets.  Every region is famous for something: Klang is famous for Bah Kut Teh, or porky herbal soup, cheap seafood dinners, Ipoh for salt-baked chicken, chicken shreds with rice noodle soup, Taiping for popiah, His Royal Highness claims Tofu pudding with syrup too, much of the East Coast of West Malaysia with Keropok, especially the thick chewy variety called Lekor, which I love so much, Kajang for Satay, Ampang for stuffed vegetables known as Yong Tau Fu. Penang is famous for Lobak, meat filled into tofu sheets, Assam Laksa, a very, very distant relative of Curry Laksa, popular in Australia… Describing just doesn’t do justice to the food of Malaysia, so  here’s a video to show you some of the culinary delights found in Penang alone:

 

2) Markets

We have morning markets, night markets, weekend markets, farmer’s markets, where you will find everything from food to apparel to traditional remedies for zits, aches and pains, household goods, to school bags, sometimes uniforms and accessories… You could do your entire week’s shopping without going to the supermarket and the best part is you can haggle until your heart’s content. Which brings me to…

3) Bargaining

When I first arrived in Australia, the rule was no bargaining. Now it is ask for the best price. In Malaysia, it is expected that you bargain. Traders in Malaysia’s famed home of fake goods, Petaling Street, LOVE it if you bargain. They expect you to bargain. You must bargain if you are to secure even a half decent deal. It’s like dancing the tango with them.

Competing stall holders will shout for your attention, saying, “Boo – tee – ful (they mean “beautiful”, you come here. I give you good deal. Good deal.”

As soon as you walk away, feigning disinterest, they will shout even louder. “Hey you boo -tee – ful, leng lui (meaning beautiful girl in Cantonese), come, come don’t be like that. Come, I’ll give you best price.” He’ll dig out his calculator and pretend to slice chunks off his profits, especially for you, boo – ti – ful.  To be sure, he wants your business.

 

4) Friendly people

Malaysians are so friendly, you can make new acquaintances just about anywhere. Many are willing to go out on a limb to show visitors around, often inviting them home for dinner or at the very least, point you in the right direction should you get lost. Just beware of people who tell you some sob story in order to get your money. My mother once lost RM100 to a man claiming to have lost his wallet outside the airport. He thanked her profusely and gave her a number no one has ever answered.

5) Cheap goods

With the exchange rate, most things are a third of what they are in Australia. I regularly stock up on Loreal sunscreen, Sensodyne toothpaste, toothbrushes, instant cooking paste sachets, clothes  and shoes whenever I go back to Malaysia. Electronics are roughly 30% less than what they are in Australia too, as is jewellery and branded goods. What I’d like to buy this trip back is several kebaya tops to wear with my jeans, or to shade my arms from the harsh Australian sun, sunscreen and a couple of items from Bobbi Brown, saving me a small fortune.

Life: the long and short of it.

Like most Australians, I came across news of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch’s death yesterday. Flipping over to page 2 of the Brisbane Times to read the cover story – a short tribute to this remarkable wife, mother and philanthropist – a mum from school I was having coffee with remarked that she was saddened by the news.

“But at least she lived a very full life,” I said. “In her time on earth, she achieved so much, helped so many through the gifting of her time, person and patronage of various charities. If I could do even a tenth, I’d consider my time here very well spent.”

The other mum nodded. “Yes, she did a lot of good. She even outlived 1 of her 4 children.”

“Chinese are extremely fatalistic. We believe that life is predestined before birth; how long, how much, how well a life you will lead, has already been decided beforehand. Dame Elizabeth was extremely fortunate to have been given her life.”

It also depends on what you do with it, isn’t it?”

“That’s true. Having a very long life is meaningless if you only live for yourself. Quality of life is important too. She had a sharp mind until the end. What’s the use in living if your body is but a shell?”

“You see some of those people who don’t exercise, smoke and drink and yet live until a 100. Some others who take care of themselves get taken away too soon.”

“I know the kind you are talking about.” I told her about Dr. Richard Teo, multimillionaire plastic surgeon, felled by lung cancer at the age of 40. “He went to the doctor thinking he had a slipped disc from working out 6 days a week when really, he had cancer.”

Another mum joined in our conversation and I reiterated the insights we’d gathered so far. She said, “The Irish have a saying, ‘He who is born to hang has no fear of drowning.'”

“Even from within a family of long-lived persons, not everyone lives until a hundred. There was this man in China, who according to the New York Post, lived until 256. I wonder how many of his descendants lived past 100,” I said.

“No, it can’t be,” said the second mum, shaking her head.

“Sure it can. He was a master at the Science of Adaptogenesis. He practised Qi Gong. Qing government records show he was congratulated by them (the Qing government, then ruling China) on his 150th and 200th birthdays. The New Post captured a picture of him. He died looking like a 60 year old in the 1930s.”

“Maybe it’s a bunch of men with the same name,” said the first mum.

“I believe it’s true because traditionally no two names within the family are the same.” Chinese don’t have the tradition of naming a son after his father or grandfather. In fact, we believe naming the child after a parent will shorten the life of the parent. Ideally, names shouldn’t even sound similar. I continued, “Every male (and to a lesser extent female) has a generation name. The generation name is unique to that generation of a family. It comes from a family’s special poem. No two characters are the same. So outsiders, at a glance, can see who is related to whom and within the family, everyone knows which generation of the family the person comes from. Of course, this one-child policy business has changed all that in China. But among overseas Chinese, many of those with a Chinese name have one character which is used for all members of that generation.”

“How very organised you all are,” said mum number 2.

People also used to have a battalion of children, so I suppose it was a practical necessity.

“I too believe that life is predestined,” said mum 1. “Given your genes, there is just so long that you can live.”

“My mum had breast cancer and even though doctors botched up her treatment, she’s lived past the 5 year mark. They should study why this woman is still alive,” said mum 2.

“Well, you know there are survival statistics. Your mum is one of the lucky ones to live beyond what is common for someone with her illness. It’s been known to happen. That’s why I said it’s already written,” I said.

It’s the same message I convey to my ageing mother, who vexes herself frequently, and may I add unnecessarily, over every possible harbinger of death: illness, murder, accidents… You can be vigilant against disease that may lead to death, you can spend your time on the lookout for people and situations that may hasten your death, but ultimately, you can’t cheat or deny death. Its a given.

Death is not the absence of life. It’s the ending of life. So make the most of your time left. Let the petty and small-minded be (message to self about a certain cyber STALKER named Wendy). Live fully, live well, with purpose, and your time here will be well spent.

 

 

 

The definition of family (aka my impending trip to Malaysia).

As the day draws near for me to go back to Malaysia for a month-long visit, I find myself being engaged in more conversations about my land of birth than is usual. Many of my Aussie mates want to know about Malaysia’s numerous tourist attractions, which I, as an unofficial representative of Tourism Malaysia, am happy to tell them all about. More still want to know what I’ll be doing there, as a prodigal daughter of the country who’s been away for the past 6 years.

Yes, I’ve been gone for the last 6 years. I thought it was 5, but I miscounted. Well, I narrowly missed my own 21st birthday by getting the day wrong, so this shouldn’t surprise you; I will need to start taking super-strength gingko as soon as I return from Malaysia, if I am to remember anyone’s names. That’s why I advise people to remind me if they require my input or participation. To this end, I am most indebted to my cousin Peggy, the eldest daughter of my eldest aunt, for co-ordinating a welcome home dinner on my behalf.

Peggy has managed to assemble all of my mother’s sisters, bar one who lives in Penang, who I’ll see at a later date when I go up north to see other family members. Naturally, she’s extended my invitation (I am paying for dinner) to their spouses, children and grandchildren. His Royal Highness has only met a handful of them after 11 years of marriage. Amanda has met half that number and has no recollection of having seen anyone other than members of my immediate family and my cousin in Melbourne.

On my mother’s side alone, counting her half-siblings, I have 20 uncles and aunts, 41 first cousins, numerous second cousins, a few of whom I’m now acquainted with, thanks to facebook. Long live facebook. Many of my Aussie mates find the idea of being related to such a huge number of people bewildering as few can name more than 5 of their first cousins.

“And are you also inviting the one you’ve not spoken to in a decade?”asked His Royal Highness about the dinner.

“Yes, even her.” Although she won’t be coming because she has no one to care for her two young children in the evenings.

“Whose daughter is she?”

“My fourth aunt’s. My aunt’s husband won’t be joining us.”

“Who’s her husband?”

“A half-Indian, former diplomat. I hear he’s got another good job. You’ve met his son.”

“How about your other uncle?”

“As long as he’s married to my aunt, he’s welcome. That’s the definition of family.”

His Royal Highness pulled a face. His objection to spending time with my family is that everyone stands on decorum; we’re exceedingly polite towards each other.

“It’s none of my business what goes on between them,” I said. “If you don’t judge my family, I won’t judge yours. It’s not that I enjoy being cooped up in your uncle’s house, but I’ll be there because we are married to each other. They are my in-laws and I have to pay them a visit. I’ll try to be as amiable as possible.”

If age has taught me anything, is that it’s pointless having terse conversations, leading to awkward silences, with people you will only see on a smattering of occasions. Let’s all just enjoy the little time we have together. Perhaps, I’ll be on holiday.

Previously, His Royal Highness also objected to seeing my other uncle in Penang because the latter makes him feel small – my uncle once told him he has a urologist on retainer for RM40k per month – but he now understands that I visit my uncle in order to pay respects to my aunt, who’s been kind to me since childhood.

I said to him, “You, Chinese educated, should understand the definition of family. It’s everyone I am related to by blood and through marriage.”

Furthermore, in Chinese culture, aunts are like second mothers. My eldest aunt, Peggy’s mother, babysat me for free throughout childhood. When I started dating, she advised me on men and marriage. Her sister, my aunt in Penang, never hesitated to tell me to stand straighter, eat with my mouth close, breathe through my nose, not talk in a baby-ish voice… all the things a mother would do. Only the younger generation, very much Westernised, finds being corrected by anyone other than one’s parents intolerable. But such is society nowadays: Godless, cultureless and valueless.

Apart from family, I’ll be seeing my best mates from university, Keng Yew and Sheau Jing, unable to make the trip to Ipoh, where I’ll be with my parents for the remainder of my stay, since they are awaiting the arrival of their first born. We plan to meet up for dinner on my first day back, accompanied by a couple of our other university mates. If Sheau Jing, now heavily pregnant, feels up to it, we might even go for a stroll in Petaling Street after dinner.

Due to severe restrictions on my time, I will only be able to fit in one “old girls’ reunion” at my old alma mater (PM me if you are in Ipoh, and want to visit our school), and anyone else willing to drive to Ipoh to see me at my parents’ house. Forgive me for not rendezvousing with you in Kuala Lumpur, if that’s where you are, but I have few days there and have allocated my time to family and a few uni mates for the aforementioned reasons.

As for everyone else, I’ll leave you with this lovely video of Malaysia.

 

 

 

 

 

The price of empathy: Aussie employers vs Chinese employers.

After dinner at Sardine Tin, a French-Italian-Spanish fusion place on Southbank last night, my family of 3 wandered down the road, trying to kill some time before the start of Daniel Craig’s latest outing as James Bond in Skyfall. Since we’re locals to Southbank, Amanda was well aware we’d soon come across Movenpick of Switzerland, that renown ice-creamery. Thus, in the manner of all children, she asked us to stop for a scoop or three.

“But I’m still full from dinner,” protested her father, the King.

“You know she’ll keep at this until she gets what she wants,” I said to him. “We might as well get her a scoop,” I reasoned.

“Get a banana split then.” His Royal Highness was probably counting the banana from the split as fruit instead of desert; the mental tricks we play on ourselves.

I went up to the counter to place our order. There was only a 20-something year old girl with a professional camera snapping the wide array of ice creams on offer, and her boyfriend, about the same age, both speaking in Mandarin. They were ahead of me, so I stood patiently, waiting my turn. From their conversation, it was clear they couldn’t read the ice cream labels, much less understand what the words stood for.

Being my usual helpful self, I told them the ice cream they were pointing at was blueberry mixed with cream. “It’s delicious,” I said. “They all are.”

“Oh, you speak Mandarin?” said the boyfriend.

“Most certainly. I am a Chinese person,” I said. Why does it surprise everyone?

“How much a serve with a cone?” he asked the lady serving us.

“$10.95,” she said, from across the other side of the counter.

“It’s delicious,” I repeated, hoping they’d get a move on so that I can place my order.

“But it’s very expensive,” said the boyfriend.

“This is Movenpick of Switzerland, a very famous ice cream brand.”

“Yes, I know, we have it in Taiwan too. It’s cheap over there.”

“Everything is expensive in Australia,” I said to him, remembering the shock I had at paying $7 for fried rice at a cheap eats restaurant in Clayton when I first joined His Royal Highness.

That same fried rice is now $10, still considered a cheap eat. Basically, any meal for one less than $15 is cheap by Australian standards. The typical Aussie spends $40 to $50 per person dining out. That might buy a decent steak with fries, a glass of regular house wine, perhaps that non-obligatory tip at a more high-end place.

“I’m looking for a room too. I just arrived in Australia,” said the boyfriend.

“Go on the internet to find one,” I said. “Expect to pay good money, especially in this area.”

Rents start from $300 per room per week, in my area. If you pay anything less than this, don’t expect too much, or for the landlord to maintain your place; it’s below market price for a reason.

Thanking me for my help, the boyfriend allowed me to cut ahead of him to order my banana split since he and his girlfriend still couldn’t decide on paying $10.95 for an ice cream. At my table, I recounted the conversation to His Royal Highness.

“Australia is now more expensive than Europe thanks to the flooding of cheap imports from  East Europe,” said His Royal Highness.

My good friends Paul and Tania, having toured most of Europe after their eight-month stay in the UK, said the same thing. “You can get asparagus for a pound, meat for a pound, ham for a pound…What do we get for a dollar over here? Nothing!

Australian cities are fast becoming the most expensive places in the world to live in; the bulk of living costs made up by the price of housing. Even to visit costs an arm and a leg, unless scrounging off unwitting hosts. That’s because our wages are high. Labour cost is high, so goods and services are also expensive.

“But there is no doubt we treat workers very well here,” I said to His Royal Highness. “X, whom I helped to approach an employer for, is paid well-above award rate. How many Chinese employers would do that?”

“There are a few good Chinese employers.”

“That number is very, very small. For every one Chinese employer in Australia that pays the award rate, thousands don’t. Look at all the Chinese restaurants in all the enclaves. The award rate is $15.96, yet they only pay $7 or $8 an hour. If they give you $10 an hour, they think they’re doing you an almighty favour, giving you a job. I was at X’s place having seafood noodles when her friend called through to say that she receives no holiday pay, no sick leave entitlements, no overtime rates, working for a Chinese in Brisbane’s north. You can forget about superannuation. X was so happy her employer was going to be an Aussie.”

“Yes, Aussies are good for society. They may lose out in the medium term, due to uncompetitive pricing, but in the long-run, they’ll do better.”

“X’s employer not only pays above award rates, she gets superannuation too. At the end of every 3 months, her employer even gives her a performance bonus that is a share of the company’s profits, equalling about 1 week’s salary. Her employer explained to me so that I’d explain to her, he wants all his employees to be happy. When they are happy and motivated, they make fewer mistakes. Chinese employers don’t think this way. We are able to undercut the competition because we pay labour little and ourselves last. Aussies pays themselves first and their labour a fair rate. Hence $10.95 for Movenpicks.”

“How do you know this ice cream is not made in China?”

“How can you say such a thing?” I said, sputtering. “It says Movenpick of Switzerland! “These are Swiss cows, dining on Swiss grass!”

Having binged on a series of Chinese fake goods videos from youtube (starting with fake eggs and fake lettuce, right through to cooking oil scooped out of the gutter and stinky tofu laced with human faeces) I’m afraid to put anything in my mouth that originates from China. I’d rather pay more for fresh produce grown locally. I’ve even simplified my soups so that they feature fewer China-grown dried ingredients. Who knows what chemicals lurk in there? I’ve also cut down on my consumption of Chinese mock meats because too much processed food defeats the whole purpose of  eating vegetarian. After all, what price do you put on your health? Your life?

People don’t see how paying workers a decent rate leads to better health, but a happier workforce is a more ethical one. It is the ethics of strangers that we rely on to ensure the food we eat is fit for consumption and the goods we use, of a reasonable quality. Can you not see how one relates to another?